3.6 Pathos: The Place of Emotion in Argument

Anna Mills

head of Buddha showing happy and sad expressions
Multi-faceted Buddha. Photo by Mark Daynes on Unsplash under the Unsplash License

The Place of Emotion in Argument

We have spent the bulk of this book analyzing arguments’ logical structure. We have mapped out arguments and assessed their reasoning, evidence, and assumptions without referring to our feelings about them. And yet we all know that arguments are not won and lost solely on the merits of the ideas. Humans are not robots. As Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor put it in A Rhetoric of Argument, emotions are “powerful incentives to belief and action.” Philosophers and laypeople have long asked what role emotions should have in shaping our ideas. Is it right for arguments to appeal to emotion, or is it a cheap trick? Should we guard against feeling what an argument asks us to feel? Or should we let emotions play a role in helping us decide whether we agree or not?

In one oversimplified view, logic is a good way to decide things and listening to emotions is a bad way. We might make this assumption if we tell ourselves or others, “Stop and think. You’re getting too emotional.” According to this view, no one reasons well under the influence of emotion. Pure ideas are king, and feelings only distort them.

Of course, sometimes emotions do lead us astray. But emotions and logic can work together. Consider Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Was it illegitimate for him to ask listeners to feel deeply moved to support racial equality? He famously proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Should listeners have guarded themselves against feeling sympathy for those four children? If we care about things that matter and an argument is about something that matters, then we will and should have feelings about it. King intertwines his logical argument against racism with an appeal to our empathy, tenderness, and sense of justice.

Not all arguments are as intense as that one. Many, such as scientific journal articles, are calm and dispassionate. But all arguments must call on emotion, broadly defined, because they must motivate readers to stay engaged. Even a captive audience could potentially tune out. Every argument needs a reason to exist, a reason why it is important or relevant or just worth reading. It needs to keep us interested, or, failing that, to keep us convinced that reading on will be worthwhile. This reason to exist is sometimes called exigence. An argument can create exigence and motivate readers in many ways, but all these ways depend on emotion.

Besides the basic human emotions we might recognize on a toddler’s face—anger, joy, sadness, fear, disgust, desire, and surprise—each one with many options for levels of intensity, there are others that we don’t always think of as emotion. If we appeal to readers’ self-interest, we play on fear and hope and desire for emotional, physical, and economic well-being. Another kind of emotion is the desire for belonging, for a sense of being seen and validated. We feel pride in a group or sense of identity or social status, so references to that shared identity or status appeal to this sense of belonging. Our motivation to uphold our most precious values is bound up in deep feeling.

Another form of emotion present in the most seemingly objective arguments is curiosity. This is often combined with an appeal to a sense of pride in our intellectual capacity. Academic journal articles and popular newspaper and magazine articles and nonfiction books must all appeal to readers’ curiosity about the world and its workings and surprises to encourage them to keep reading. An argument may implicitly invite us to enjoy learning and discovery. It can offer a sense of relief, comfort, and pleasure in ideas laid out clearly in an ordered fashion.


collage of 16 photos showing different emotions on one young woman's face
The Many Faces of Expression. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels under the Pexels License

Arguments can call on emotions in support of claims, but they can also make shaping readers’ emotions their primary purpose. An argument may set out to define or change how a reader feels about something. Or, it may set out to reinforce emotions and amplify them. A eulogy, for example, is a speech that praises a person who has passed away, a person usually already known to the audience. It serves to help people feel more intensely what they already believe about the value of the person’s life.

In this section, we will explore how writers use examples, word choice, and tone to affect readers’ feelings. We will look at how writers can vary their emotional appeals in the course of an argument and adapt them to specific audiences. Finally, we will consider how to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate emotional appeals, between those that fit the logic of the argument and those that stray from it.

Word Choice and Connotation

Let’s look at how writers choose words not only to convey ideas but to shape readers’ emotional experiences and subconscious reactions.

Connotation refers to the emotions, social and cultural implications, and related concepts that most people associate with a word. Some connotations are obvious: anyone would prefer to be called “assertive” rather than “pushy” for demanding something they consider to be their right. Other connotations are more subtle. Consider the difference between the feelings associated with the words “change” and “transform.” “Transform” has connotations of visionary change for the better. If we hear that “the new college president has transformed the admissions process” we are more likely to feel hopeful, perhaps impressed, without knowing anything at all about the nature of the changes. If we hear simply that “the new college president has changed the admissions process,” we will probably feel more skeptical about these changes and what their positive and negative impacts may be.

Consider what different feelings about journalists come across in the following two sentences:

  • The media were swarming around the pileup on the expressway to capture every conceivable injury for the evening news.
  • The journalists were on the scene at the expressway crash to document the incident for the evening news.

The first sentence gives us a sense of media reporting that is inappropriately aggressive through the words “swarm” and “capture.” In the second sentence, on the other hand, “were on the scene” and “document” imply that the journalists are neutral, diligent, and professional.

If something in an argument is likely to set the reader against the argument, the writer can try to soften that reaction by choosing the most positive words available to fit the meaning. If the writer wants to intensify feelings of outrage, tragedy, or absurdity around a phenomenon that readers might otherwise dismiss as ordinary, the writer will need to think of an unfamiliar and dramatic way to describe that phenomenon.

Practice Exercises

  1. Rank the words below from most negative to neutral to most positive. What are the connotations of each word?
  • riot, demonstration, protest, rally, uprising, unrest, march, revolt, movement

Next, discuss the feelings and images called up by the following two sentences:

  • Rioters flooded downtown streets on Monday afternoon.
    Protestors marched through the city.

Think of a situation in which public demonstrations or unrest occurred. Describe what happened, choosing your words carefully to shape readers’ feelings and associations.

  1. Working in a pair or small group, order the following groups of words from least to most positive, using your knowledge of connotation to guide you. Note where you agree or disagree on a word’s connotation. What cultural, socio-economic, or personal factors may have caused your group’s disagreements (or lack thereof)?
  • thin, fit, lanky, skinny, gaunt, slender
  • aggressive, assertive, domineering, dynamic, pushy
  • shrewd, nerdy, bright, brilliant, cunning, smart, intelligent
Contributions and Attributions: 8.1: The Place of Emotion in Argument is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative). 8.2: Word Choice and Connotation is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative). The definition of “connotation” and some examples are adapted from articles on the topic in Reading and Writing for Learning from the Community College of Allegheny County, licensed CC BY-NC-SA. It was further remixed and edited by Dr. Tracey Watts and Dr. Dorie LaRue as part of the LOUIS Interactive OER for Dual Enrollment project, 2022. It is licensed under a CC-BY NC-SA 4.0 International license, unless otherwise noted.Creative Commons license


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3.6 Pathos: The Place of Emotion in Argument Copyright © 2022 by Anna Mills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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